Life after leaving Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox community

‘You don’t know anything. You don’t know any music, you don’t know the language, you don’t know how to dress’

Three years ago, Abby Stein began a journey that saw her leave her ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, find herself a foreigner in her own country and come out as trans. She didn’t know how to speak English or do everyday things like buy Starbucks – even though she was born and grew up in the heart of New York City. Today, Abby Stein is a third year at Columbia studying political science, women and gender studies. Here’s her story – the second part of our interview with her.

Abby Stein

Let me give you a basic framework of the education in the Hasidic community. People actually don’t know. They are literally unaware of what’s going on under their nose in New York City. When I take friends there, I show them around Williamsburg, and they get shocked. Like: “What’s this Williamsburg? This is New York City?” It feels like you’re in the 18th Century. People dress totally different. Men and women don’t interact.

This is South Williamsburg. Signs, buses, the language on the street, it’s all in Yiddish or Hebrew. It’s an entirely different culture. I was just there with another Columbia student a few weeks ago and we were walking around and she’s like: “Oh my god. This is like Chinatown, just a lot more intense.” It’s an entirely different culture and most outsiders don’t go there. It’s like the Amish community, which is isolated and sheltered in the countryside. It’s just like what they do, but in the middle of New York City. I always say it’s fascinating, in a really bad way.

A young Abby, center

So back to the education system. Obviously, boys and girls go to separate schools. I would always say that it was a school that was supposed to be boys only. I actually wasn’t the only one, there’s actually another friend of mine that I know of who will hopefully transition at some point.

There are slight differences between the exact sect and exact community but this is the way I grew up. In the school I went to, most of the day is only Jewish studies. The days get really long. Starting in fourth grade you’re in school from 8:30 to 5, and then 6th grade and up it’s from 8am to 6pm. From 4th to the 8th grade, for one hour per day, Monday through Thursday, we have what we call “English”. Legally there are things they are required to teach like English, Math, Science and Social Studies – but Science and Social Studies don’t even exist. It’s just English and Math but even those are a joke.

By the time I finished 8th grade, my English was to the extent that I couldn’t read or write anything and math stops at a level of long division. That’s it. 9th grade and up, you only do Jewish studies. 10th grade and up is a totally different structure. There’s something which is called in Hebrew Yeshiva. Think of it as a mix of high school and seminary where, from 15 until 18, I went to this school in the Catskills, in the middle of nowhere.

We were on a campus with between 250 and 400 students, again, supposedly boys only. And we were not allowed to leave. We literally had a map with a line drawn here.

This is what they called “the border” in Hebrew. You were not allowed to leave this area. If you left without permission, you could have been expelled. It was really intense.

I started questioning the religion and the community when I was 12. When it comes to gender for example, while I’m very proud of the term transgender, in some ways it implies that at some point you were a different gender. I don’t have any conscious memories of identifying as a boy. Since I was really young, my biggest revelations were: “Hey, why does everyone think I’m a boy?”

I have conscious memories like that since I was four years old. I had different ways of dealing with that as a child. When I was seven years old, I collected clippings from newspaper articles and Held magazine in Yiddish which we used to get. It was heavily censored but they had some articles about organ transplants like kidney or lung transplants. And I thought: “I’m going to collect everything to the point where I will find out how to do a full body transplant.”

It was just a way of dealing with it. Then when I was nine, I was like: “OK, this doesn’t make any sense.” And I threw them all out. There was this prayer we have every night before we go to bed. And I added to that prayer, my personal prayer: “I just want to wake up as a girl.” Which is apparently really common for a lot of trans people growing up in religious communities. You think: “God can do everything.” So you’re just going to pray.

That was until I was 12, and began to think, maybe its not my gender identity but it’s my religious identity. Maybe there was something wrong with the way I grew up and that I should start exploring that and I started asking questions that I wasn’t supposed to.

The first time I was kicked out of class for asking questions I wasn’t supposed to ask was when I was 12. That was the only rebelling that I had – my teenage rebelling was for asking the wrong questions. The exact question I asked was when we were discussing something in the Talmud. We were talking about all these weird ways you can see demons and how you can get rid of demons. Like if you do X, Y and Z, you’re going to be able to see demons so I asked my teacher: “Can I try this at home? Is it actually going to work?”

He got so upset he told me to leave class and after school he called me over to have this long conversation and told me that if I was going to keep asking questions like that I was going to go “off the derech” which literally means off the path. He said if I was going to continue asking questions like that I was going to end up leaving the community and well, he was right.

At the moment, I thought: “Why is he so upset?” What I said wasn’t so bad. But then I realized, it’s like they put you in this safety deposit box and are like: “Yeah, you can ask questions but don’t peak out of the box.” Everything a rabbi said was true. It doesn’t matter if they sometimes contradict themselves, it’s all true.

My questions weren’t sincere questions trying to get an answer, at that point it was like: “So we both know this is all bullshit.” That was the tone of my questions. And that’s why he freaked out. It was a very slippery slope. I got into a lot books and at 15, I decided I was done.

I was already at the Yeshiva and which is interesting because it was so secluded. I was also able to get my hands on books that in the city I would have been afraid to get. I would keep them in my drawer and no one would ever see them. I was reading for example Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. I was reading books about biblical criticism. I was reading books about evolution. I couldn’t read English at that point so it was all in Hebrew and Yiddish.

We were in the middle of nowhere so there was one student who was the “book seller”. If you wanted to buy a personal book there was no book store. It was like living in the 18th Century in the middle of nowhere, so no internet.

He worked with an Israeli whole seller. You’d give him the name and he’d give you the book. I had my suspicions that he wasn’t the biggest scholar and that he didn’t know what some of these books were so that if I gave him the name of a book, he’d just get it. I first tried books that were maybe controversial but that I could get away with if someone asked questions. Then I figured out I could get whatever I wanted and as long as I had the names of books. In other words, it was like old pre-internet research where one book would lead to the next.

When I decided I was done with Judaism, that’s when I met an Israeli rabbi who was part of the traditional community but is also a big mystic and fights a lot with contemporary hasidic culture.

We had one weekend off per year and I would go back to my parents’ house. That rabbi was in Brooklyn so I went to go see him. His secretary said I could have half an hour with him on a Thursday night. I met him at 9:30 and we went until 2 am. He started telling me how I should get into mysticism and that’ll solve all my problems. Which it did. The reason that it stuck was because for the first time in Judaism, gender became fluid.

For example, some of these texts, specifically one, which was one of the first things I read was:

“Sometimes a man may reincarnate into the body of a woman because of a sin, such as homosexuality or something similar.”

It talks about reincarnation, fluidity of gender and how souls can end up in the wrong bodies. For the first time, I had found an outlet. Before, we were told to take all this stuff metaphorically. Still for me, it was something.

Just like in the beginning, gender dysphoria triggered my idea to start exploring religion, now I got to a point that because of my gender identity, I got into Jewish mysticism even more. That lasted until I was about 20 which was the time right before my son was born. That’s when I started feeling more like gender was so out there and the Cabal just wasn’t helping anymore. I went back to all my religious questions from before. I decided to leave the community and that’s when I joined Footsteps, which helps people leaving.

I joined them May of 2012. That was already six months after I stopped being observant in the traditional sense. I separated from my ex in spring of 2013, we got divorced just a few months later – that’s when I was really done with the community and stopped hiding.

I still lived for a year with my parents until I started at Columbia. I physically lived in Williamsburg but I didn’t go to any community events, all my friends were already outside of the community. Most of my time I spent getting ready for my GED, getting my GED, I did the program at community impact and would spend a lot of time at Footsteps.

Footsteps saved my life in every way possible. I lost all my friends in my community and they give you support, scholarship programs, career programs. When people leave, they say at Footsteps: “You’re an immigrant in your own country,” which is 100 percent accurate because you don’t know anything. You don’t know any music, you don’t know the language, you don’t know how to dress. You don’t know how to walk into a supermarket, you grow up in a complete bubble. You’re an immigrant but you can’t get any help from any groups that would help immigrants because you grew up here.

For example, Columbia requires all international students to take ALP. I didn’t speak English, I know less English than most non-Americans that come in here but it didn’t cross their mind to ask for a student who grew up in New York to take the ALP.

So then at the writing center at Columbia, they have this thing where if you’re an international student, you can have standing appointments every week. I wanted to get that but they would say, “No this is only for international students.” When it came to language and writing, I was an international student. Eventually they gave it to me.

I remember the first time I walked into a Starbucks, and I was like: “Umm OK so how does this work?” You have to understand that growing up, we didn’t even go to restaurants period. But even Kosher restaurants work very differently.

Imagine Starbucks as this indoor place that has its own culture. I feel like every New Yorker knows how to do it, they know some of the lingo. But here you are, and you’re wondering how does this work? Do you wait in a line? Is that what you do? What are lines? Because it’s something we don’t really do. Like knowing how to stand in a line and not push for example. Where we come from, lines don’t mean anything.

I literally walked in and it took me 10 minutes. I was asking myself: “What the fuck is going on here?” And I finally said: “It’s my first time in a Starbucks, can you help me?” And it took a lot of courage.

I remember my first time getting a pair of jeans and that was a big deal. We went to Levi’s on a Jewish holiday. I went with a friend and I didn’t know anything. And so my friend says: “Try it on” and I was like: “OK” and start taking off my coat and everything and she said: “No not here! There are fitting rooms.” I might have known of fitting rooms but I didn’t know what it was like to walk into a Levi’s or any department store.

The first movie that I watched in a movie was Magic Mike. It was in Rockland County and I was still married. I went with a friend of mine and I was terrified to go to the cinema and that maybe I’d see someone I know. You’re not supposed to go to the movies. So she said let’s go on a Saturday afternoon because none of the religious people would go. I was still dressed in the full religious garb.

People know that religious Jews don’t even drive, so of course they don’t go to the movies. It was a weird experience, I remember looking on the screen and thinking: “OMG is he going to come and grab me?” Because I had never seen such a big screen in my life. It was so weird getting used to such a big screen and the sounds. It was my first time getting the whole theater experience.

I remember the first time I binge watched a TV show. It was a Friday night and I watched How I Met Your Mother. It was so cool. It was so interesting, glorious even. The experience I had watching my first sitcom, it’s not going to happen again. It was like being born again.

When I was there I started getting involved a bit with the Columbia community, specifically with the Columbia-Barnard Hillel. I started making some friends and I fell in love with this place. I really wanted to come here but I was like: “Oh, really, you only have a high school diploma, you can barely speak English, and you want to come to Columbia? Good luck to you.”

So at first I was like, I’m not even going to apply. I spent two months studying my ass off for the GS admissions exam. I paid $80 for the admissions fee but I was fairly convinced that it was a waste of money. I think my admissions essay was pretty good.

It started out literally by saying: “I was born and raised in New York City but until I was twenty, I had never watched TV, never watched and movies, never seen a Broadway show, and never listened to music.”

That was my hook. And apparently it worked. I got in and I started school in the Fall of 2014.

Columbia University